Monday, March 31, 2008

Sadr Criticizes Iran, the ISCI Meets Iran, & Maliki Continues The Offensive

To call Iraqi politics byzantine is an oversimplification. Maliki's Iraqi government appears the clear winner at this point, as Sadr has backed down in Basra and elsewhere in Iraq. This matter is far from over as Maliki continues to demand that the militias in Basra hand over their weapons and appears ready to force the issue. And now Sadr has lashed out at Iranian intervention in Iraq.


PM Maliki welcomed the unilateral ceasefire called by Sadr (see here) and there is some indication that he is considering or has agreed to calls for at least a partial amnesty of Mahdi Army members currently being held by the government. Nonetheless, Maliki is moving more forces into Basra and fully intends to disarm the militias in Basra to the extent possible. Further, members of the rival Shia party, ISCI, met with the head of Iran's Qods force to ask them to stop supplying Sadr's Mahdi militia. This from Bill Rogio at the Long War Journal:

One day after Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, called for his fighters to abandon combat, the fighting in Basrah has come to a near-halt and the Iraqi security forces are patrolling the streets. While Sadr spokesman said the Iraqi government agreed to Sadr's terms for the ceasefire, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has said the security forces will continue operations in Basrah in the south. Meanwhile, the Mahdi Army took heavy casualties in Basrah, Nasiriyah, Babil, and Baghdad over the weekend, despite Sadr's call for the end of fighting.

Maliki was clear that operations would continue in the South. "The armed groups who refuse al Sadr's announcement and the pardon we offered will be targets, especially those in possession of heavy weapons," Maliki said, referring to the 10 day amnesty period for militias to turn in heavy and medium weapons. "Security operations in Basra will continue to stop all the terrorist and criminal activities along with the organized gangs targeting people."

The Iraqi military said it was moving in more forces into the south after admitting it was surprised by the level of resistance encountered in Basrah. "Fresh military reinforcements were sent to Basra to start clearing a number of Basra districts of wanted criminals and gunmen taking up arms," said Brigadier General Abdel Aziz al Ubaidi, the operations chief for the Ministry of Defense. "Preparations for fresh operations have been made to conduct raids and clearance operations in Basra... the military operations would continue to restore security in Basra."

The reasons behind Sadr's call for a cessation in fighting remain unknown, but reports indicate the Mahdi Army was having a difficult time sustaining its operations and has taken heavy casualties. "Whatever gains [the Mahdi Army] has made in the field [in Basrah], they were running short of ammunition, food, and water," an anonymous US military officer serving in South told The Long War Journal. "In short [the Mahdi Army] had no ability to sustain the effort.

TIME's sources in Basrah paint a similar picture. "There has been a large-scale retreat of the Mahdi Army in the oil-rich Iraqi port city because of low morale and because ammunition is low due to the closure of the Iranian border," the magazine reported.

McClatchy Newspapers indicated a member of the Maliki's Dawa party and the leader of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, traveled to Qom, Iran to lobby Qods Forces officers to get Sadr to halt the fighting. The trip "had two aims, lawmakers said: to ask Sadr to stand down his militia and to ask Iranian officials to stop supplying weapons to Shiite militants in Iraq." The two men met with Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Qods Force, the foreign special operations branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The Mahdi Army has also taken high casualties since the fighting began on March 25. According to an unofficial tally of the open source reporting from the US and Iraqi media and Multinational Forces Iraq, 571 Mahdi Army fighters have been killed, 881 have been wounded, 490 have been captured, and 30 have surrendered over the course of seven days of fighting. . . .

Read the entire article, there is much more.

The LWJ does not mention the Iranian response to the ISCI meeting, but it must have been positive as it appears that Sadr has now publicly denounced Iran. This from Meir Javedanfar at Pajamas Media:

Feeling the heat of the recent offensive against his forces around Iraq, Muqtada Al Sadr, who has long been suspected of receiving support from the Iranian government, decided to publicly condemn the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

His verbal attack was an unprecedented turn of events for the young Shiite, who for the last year has been traveling to Iran on several occasions to complete his theological studies in order to become an Ayatollah himself. Western security sources have long suspected that these trips have also been used in order to receive financial assistance from Iran, and to coordinate the Mahdi army’s military and political strategy with the leadership in Tehran.

There are important reasons behind his offensive against Khameini.

Primarily, Al Sadr is furious at the fact that members of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), have joined the Iraqi army’s offensive against his forces in important areas such as Baghdad and Basra.

ISCI, which is led by Ayatollah Abdul Aziz al-Hakim has the support of middle and upper class Shiites in Iraq, while Al Sadr’s Mahdi army has the backing of poor Shiites. Al Sadr is not only upset because ISCI has decided to turn its guns against fellow Shiites, but also at the fact that ISCI has been the recipient of a larger amount of aid from Tehran than his organization. This may lead Al Sadr to believe that ISCI has embarked on this adventure, with Tehran’s blessing. This belief would explain why, during his controversial interview with Al Jazeera on Saturday night, Al Sadr condemned what he called “Iranian intervention in Iraq’s security and politics.”

Presumably, his hope is that by condemning and distancing himself Tehran, he could get more local grass root support inside Iraq; something which he could use later on in order to stage a political and military comeback.

While its too early to declare victory and celebrate, nevertheless, Al Sadr’s recent move can be considered as an achievement for the US, in its ongoing struggle with Tehran over influence in Iraq.

Until now, Tehran has been masterfully controlling both Al Sadr and ISCI allies as a tool to increase its influence. Whether or not Washington sanctioned Maliki’s recent operations against the Mahdi army; the rift created between Iraq’s two major Shiite organizations is making Iran’s Iraqi adventure more cumbersome at least in the immediate future.

. . . For now, Washington and Al Maliki’s government must use the recent military setbacks for Al Sadr as an opportunity to reach out to poor Iraqis who form the basis of Al Sadr’s support. Unless economic assistance is provided to improve their lives, and security, Tehran could step in. . . .

It would not be the first time that Tehran has supported two opposing sides in a conflict, and it would not be the last either.

Read the entire article. The more the situation in Iraq clarifies, the murkier it becomes. That said, this appears mostly positive from the U.S. standpoint.

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